Understanding Competency Based Education
Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Teachers take on this herculean task and work mindfully to help students overcome social inequalities. It comes with the job— caring about students' present and future lives, working hard for them to be ready for the best opportunities presented to each and every one of them. So it is no surprise that educators shudder at the news that around half of our current jobs are estimated to be fully automatable by 2025 (Mckinsey Global Institute, 2017; World Economic Forum, 2020). Soon there could be large groups of displaced workers, worsening already stark inequalities, if we don’t prepare our students now for this drastic change to the workforce. How can we continue traditional education in good conscience? This outdated method of hours upon hours of a student sitting in a seat, preparing for one test, and progressing on to new content regardless of mastery is dying. Our youth need a strategic approach to education that allows for high levels of individuality and lessens the importance of rote learning that could be replicated by machines or artificial intelligence.
But this should not be the only goal of K-12 education in the US— to only prepare workers to compete in the future job market. Schools should care about all of their students, especially those who have been underserved or even neglected by our education system. What about students who want to learn just for the sake of learning? What about students who have other strengths and aspirations outside of the typical job market, such as keeping a home, creating works of art, or starting a business? And then there are students who just don’t learn at the same pace as their peers. Whether falling behind or being held back, not all students need to follow the same uniform course timeline.
How does a system appease all of these different needs and desires? US education cannot neglect a few for the sake of many, especially when we don’t have to. We should strive to do what is best for each student, teaching them the skills they individually need to live and thrive in society, and now, with recent technological advancements, this can all finally be accomplished through competency-based education.
What is Competency Based Education?
Competencies are the desired knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed to succeed in a certain context, such as in a course, school, work, or life. In short, Competency-Based Education (CBE), also known as Competency-Based Learning (CBL), is the student designing and owning their own path and pace in their education based on certain competencies. The National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education created a much longer and more detailed working definition of Competency-Based EducationCompetency-based education as follows (2019):
- Students are empowered daily to make important decisions about their learning experiences, how they will create and apply knowledge, and how they will demonstrate their learning.
- Assessment is a meaningful, positive, and empowering learning experience for students that yields timely, relevant, and actionable evidence.
- Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
- Students progress based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.
- Students learn actively using different pathways and varied pacing.
- Strategies to ensure equity for all students are embedded in the culture, structure, and pedagogy of schools and education systems.
- Rigorous, common expectations for learning (knowledge, skills, and dispositions) are explicit, transparent, measurable, and transferable.
According to Justin Reich, professor and director of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT (2019), competency-based education tries to shift the focus from time spent in the classroom to whether or not students can demonstrate well-defined competencies. The extensive, seven-point definition from the National Summit reveals that Competency-Based Education is a student-centered approach with a goal of equity, allowing students to learn at their own pace and apply their skills to meaningful, experiential ways to display mastery.
This learning through real-world experience and engagement was first introduced by John Dewey in his experiential learning, but it wasn’t until the 1970s with Benjamin Bloom’s work on educational research (1956) that Competency-Based Education became popular among researchers. Competency-Based Education has “regained its popularity recently with information technology supporting learners for self-motivated and personalised learning” (Young Han, 2021). But, to be clear, personalized learning and Competency-Based Learning are not synonymous. While often used incorrectly as interchangeable terms, “a competency education system enables personalized learning models by opening the system to allow multiple pathways for demonstrating what a student knows and can do.” In other words, selected competencies, such as critical thinking and self-awareness, are the foundation for the student’s education, but the overarching teaching and learning process and modes could (and should) be highly personalized.
“In the American context, Competency-Based Approach is often coupled with other approaches such as personalized learning and student-centered learning, and is also called mastery-based, proficiency-based, and performance-based education” (Patrick, Kennedy, & Powell, 2013; Wolfe & Steinberg, 2013), explains Evans, Landl, and Thompson in The Journal of Competency-Based Education (2021). These alternative names and coupled practices display the vocabulary shift from the traditional teacher-centered, time-based instruction model to a student-centered, outcome-focused emphasis on learning. In the Competency-Based Approach model, students are the agents of their own education, and mastery, not time, is the goal.
Competency-Based Education VS Traditional Education
Traditional education, designed to promote inequitable outcomes, typically requires sitting for a defined amount of time in a mandatory course while trying to achieve mastery showcased by a single summative event. Instead, holding a “promise as a uniquely powerful model for fostering equity,” competency-based education, grounded in outcomes, allows for learning pathways and timelines that vary from student to student and retaking the assessments until mastery is achieved (Casey & Sturgis, iNACOL; Young Han, 2021).
A major complaint of traditional education by proponents of Competency-Based Education is that “US primary and secondary education focuses on outdated instructional models that allow students to progress without having to demonstrate mastery of key learning targets” (Le et al., 2014). Competency-Based Education puts a stop to the meaningless progression and, ideally, allows each student to persevere until mastery. This is increasingly a realistic possibility— with current and future technologies, students can achieve differentiated learning process that is adapted just for them.
Benefits of Competency-Based Education
The dream of a highly individualized educational experience for each student can finally be fully realized on a large scale, thanks to competency-based learning infused with our new age of digital and virtual technology. Students can participate in countless courses and lessons, even meeting people around the world and becoming a global citizen (a 21st Century skill), problem-solving and sharing ideas across state and national lines. This is the dream, and it can actually be a reality. The possible benefits of implementing competency-based education are plentiful, but the most obvious and pervasive positive is increased student interest and motivation.
Students in just one class can have vastly varying interests and skills, and engaging students in the lesson, especially in secondary education, can be challenging for instructors. Oftentimes students are made to endure classes upon classes, fulfilling mandatory requirements, with little to no regard for individual preferences and strengths. This is a recipe for poor student motivation, but matching them each with a highly individualized path and pace in their self-driven education can do wonders for motivation.
It may seem counterintuitive, but continuing to work at a competency for a long time can actually boost motivation. Carol Dweck argues in her book, Mindset (2006), that students who show motivation to persevere through challenging tasks have developed a “growth mindset,” believing that they can grow their skills instead of a mindset that believes in “fixed” abilities. Competency-Based Education assessments, by nature, require and build determined motivation because, in this model, schools can no longer “pass them along.” Dweck’s study also shows that students even choose more challenging tasks to complete when praised for their perseverance and grit. According to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (2018), “Learners with a growth mindset are certainly more motivated to work hard.” Building a growth mindset is fundamental to Competency-Based Education and a recipe for success in any context.
Examples of Competency-Based Education
Let’s look at some real-world examples of how, across the country, teachers have successfully implemented Competency-Based Education in their classrooms. The following are Competency-Based Education in practice:
- Flow Day— students get to pursue passion projects tailored to their individual interests. This idea was practiced by Kelly Brady, the current Director of Mastery Education for the Idaho State Department of Education who has also written about competency-based learning.
- Video Essay— teachers can assess students’ understanding of a topic in this formative assessment, and give meaningful, timely feedback on competencies (Thoeming, 2017).
- Digital Portfolios— students can collect and save artifacts digitally in order to highlight a “project’s development, its revisions, and its completion as evidence of learning [allowing] students to demonstrate mastery authentically, providing space for them to reflect on stumbling blocks and the ways in which they overcame them” (Thoeming, 2017).
- Data Talks— an opportunity for students and teachers to create meaning from information gathered during an assessment. “If an exam showed that a student struggled with identifying theme, for instance, I would come to the data talk prepared with learning strategies and together we would develop a plan for remediation” (Thoeming, 2017).
Cross-Curricular Projects— for a summative assessment, a student can plan a school improvement project that involves performing research, writing a proposal, creating a budget, and drafting a rendering (Great Schools Partnership; Illinois State Board of Education).
Outcomes of Competency-Based Education
A majority of studies show that Competency-Based Education has a positive relationship across all content areas and at all levels and results in “positive affective outcomes for students and teachers” (Anderson, 1994). A report (sponsored by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation) that explores the Competency-Based Education movement and its outcomes gives one of the most succinct accounts of the positive outcomes of Competency-Based Education (Le, Wolfe, and Steinberg, 2014):
Students at the Center, an initiative of Jobs for the Future, presents evidence concluding that students are more engaged, more motivated, and achieve better learning outcomes—including the skills, knowledge, and expertise needed for success in college, career, and civic life—under four key conditions: education is personalized to their needs; they can advance upon mastery of clear learning targets; they have a range of learning opportunities in and out of school; and they have voice, choice, and agency in their learning experiences (R. Wolfe, A. Steinberg, & N. Hoffman, eds. 2013. Anytime, Anywhere: Student-Centered Learning for Schools and Teachers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.).
In today’s classroom, with the appropriate supports, the aforementioned positive outcomes are already underway and succeeding in the US and around the globe. No longer do educators need to talk about truly differentiated and personalized instruction as if it is an unreachable ideal.
A revolution is underway in K-12 education pedagogical practice. Nationally highlighted social and political unrest in the news combined with the Covid-19 pandemic created a perfect catalyst for Competency-Based Education to take off in school districts throughout the US, meeting today’s students where they are, equitably, in their educational journey. Education cannot afford to lag behind societal changes anymore because big changes are happening and more are coming. The traditional route in teaching our youth died with the previous century— it is the perfect time for educators to work Competency-Based Education into their daily lessons and their school board agendas.